MESSIAEN: Éclairs sur L'Au-Delà
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57788 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:24

SCHMIDT: The Book with Seven Seals
Stig Andersen, tenor; René Pape, baritone; Christiane Oelze, soprano; Cornelia Kallisch, alto; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Alfred Reiter, bass; Friedemann Winklhofer, organist; Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orch/Franz Welser-Möst, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 85782 (2 CDS) (B) (DDD) TT: 61:01 & 45:47

These two wildly dissimilar works – their respective composers’ last for orchestra –share a major historical figure as the principal inspiration: St. John the Divine, he of the “Apocrypha” in Catholic Bibles and the “Epistles” in Protestant Ones. Both works quote from the “Apocrypha,” but approach it as dissimilarly as their styles are alien. In Book with Seven Seals, an oratorio for massed solo, choral and orchestral forces composed between 1935 and 1937, Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) wrote in effect a synopsis of the entire “Apocrypha.” Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) prefaced each of his 11-movement Illuminations of the Beyond with passages from both it and the “Epistles” (as well as other Biblical line-readings, with a single exception that need not detain us here). But Messiaen’s “Apocrypha” contained only post-Apocalyptic passages, after God had destroyed the world, whereas Schmidt built to and then reveled in the Lord’s extinction of an irremediably corrupted Mankind.

Schmidt was born of polyglot parentage in what today is Bratislava, although Austria claims him as its last “Romantic” composer – an odd choice considering that his composition professor was Anton Bruckner, and his bias leaned toward the Lutheran Baroque as assimilated by Max Reger (born just a year-and-a-half earlier). But Schmidt, who played cello in the Vienna Staatsoper Orchestra as well as the Philharmoniker from 1896 until 1911, learned from Mahler (whom he admired early on but came to despise during the later’s 1897-1907 tenure) as well as early – which is to say pre-atonal – Schoenberg, and arguably Alexander Zemlinsky, too. Certainly Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln was Schmidt’s opus magnum, premiered after the Anschluss of March 1938 by the Vienna Singverein, to whom he dedicated it, and the Philharmonker in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal. The date was June 15, 1938, and the Nazi hierarchy turned out in full panoply; after all, Schmidt had been an outspoken advocate of “Greater Germany,” although his Jewish friends and colleagues claimed political naivété rather than pro-Hitlerism or anti-Semitism. Unfinished when Schmidt died in February 1939 was a choral work praising “Greater Germany.” His potted “Apocalypse” was both a triumph and an end. Today, nearly seven decades later, it has passages of authentic power but many more when Schmidt seemed to be marking time until God’s vengeful judgment: he needed a literary collaborator, someone to say, “Bitteschön, Meister, enough already of fugues.” Nonetheless, Das Buch has had eminent advocates in concert and on discs. Sony released a live performance in 1995 from Salzburg that Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted in 1959 with Fritz Wunderlich as St. John (I don’t know this one, but some websites still have copies for sale). Haroncourt on Teldec is available as an import; Preiser still carries a 1975 performance by provincial Austrian forces, and Lothar Zagrosek on Orfeo can be had if one looks hard enough. The latter two both have Peter Schrier singing St. John.

EMI’s live 1997 performance from Munich led by Franz Welser-Möst, originally released a year later, now returns in a twofer jewel case but without the original program book (although it can be downloaded from on 11 pages of Adobe-Acrobat tiny type). The tenor hero, a role almost as long as Siegfried, is engagingly sung by Stig Andersen, and René Pape is the Voice of the Lord. Soprano Christiane Oelze sounds overparted at sterterous moments, but contralto Cornelia Kallisch sings poignantly, and the supporting tenor and bass soloists are stalwart. Friedemann Winklehofer glories in the two big organ solos (the second one opens Part 2 on the second disc), and the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra do justice to Schmidt’s Apocryphal synopsis under Welser-Möst’s dedicated baton. His performance is probably more subdued in long narrative passages than Mitropoulos’, but I’m guessing. The recording of EMI’s 7-year-old original from the Munich Herkulessaal seems not to have been further remastered; it is sonorous without muddying Schmidt’s contrapuntal writing and louder (huzzah!) than EMI’s norm. A re-release, in sum, for those with curiosity and an appetite.

Messiaen took several years to compose Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà, commissioned in 1987 for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary but not premiered until November 5, 1992 under Zubin Mehta’s direction – some six months after the composer’s death. Messaien said in accepting the commission that he had no idea how large the orchestra would be, but the final count was 128 (including 10 flutes), although seldom does the work use the entire mass, and in fact doesn’t bring in low strings until the eighth movement, “The Stars and the Glory.” Messiaen had among his few declared passions a fondness for, almost a fixation on, odd numbers, but had bypassed 11 until Éclairs. His other passions were a mystical Catholicism and bird songs to the extent that this last orchestral work is virtually a concerto for bird calls on upper register instruments. Sadly, Roger Nichols’ annotation for EMI’s June 17-19 2004 recording in the Berlin Philharmonie is abbreviated to accommodate German and French translations within 6-1/2 pages of the program book. This even fails to include translations of movements in the original French. I have relied therefore on two essays – Paul Griffiths’ in English and Yvonne Loriod-Maessiaen’s in French – supplied by DGG in its 1993 debut recording by Myung-Whun Chung and the Bastille Opéra Orchestra, which David Porcelin followed a year later with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on an Australian ABC CD. Add another by Antoni Wit on the Jade label (presumably Polish), and a Hänssler issue in 2002 by Sylvain Cambreling and the SWR Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg. Sir Simon’s version is thus the sixth of a work just a dozen years old. Without knowing the others, I have kept the Chung/DGG performance for the conductor’s association with Messiaen (who called his Bastille Turangâlila recording the best performance of that work he’d ever heard, indeed definitive). There is a particular French timbre in the Bastille playing as well as exhaustive rehearsals of other Messiaen works under Chung that Rattle and his suave, ever so polished but lately internationalized Berliner Philharmoniker simply cannot surpass.

Rattle on the evidence of previous recordings is a devotée of Messiaen without yet having come to an understanding of his silences, which are sometimes more significant than the music before and after. Beyond that, I don’t think his Church of England orientation has assimilated the composer’s Catholic mystique. As for Berlin’s Éclair. bird imitations lack the peculiar nuance – call it musical pronunciation – of Chung and the Bastilliennes, a great orchestra during his tenure as music director, much as the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has flourished under James Levine. Timings are instructive: Rattle goes through the work in 60:24, whereas Chung took 64:56 (and Cambreling more than 76!). Whether bird calls seem too much of a fascinating thing after, say, the second hearing is up to each listener: Messiaen appeals to a specialized palate. But his obsession in this swan-song was the Australian lyre-bird, which he related in his way to the post-Apocalyptic Christ. Neither EMI’s nor DGG’s cover art is going to sell copies, but if you are devoted to the composer and Élairs sur l’Au-Delà, let me point you to Myung-Whun Chung and the Bastille orchestra, as sonorously recorded as EMI’s product and in certain moments with even greater impact. Rattle/Berlin is a class act, but not an End-All – which the work was.

R.D. (October 2004)